Reworking tradition or forging a new one?

(March 05, 2010)

The future of folk music lies in more than reworking the tradition, it also lies in taking the tradition into the 21st century and beyond.

Of course, tradition remains – future without tradition is like trees without roots. However, there are a growing number of artists and bands that extend the 'folk' branches way beyond the roots that bred them. These musicians and singers add a rich (and sometimes unexpected) variety of instruments and influences into the mix. They cover didgeridoos and saxophones, synthesisers and programming – the range is only limited by imagination and experiment. Not too long ago this continual development would be met with disgust. The cult of sacrosanct-folk (that which shall not develop) would howl with derision or mutter vehemently. Some would attempt to extinguish the new. Others would ignore it. The more enlightened would see not competition or desecration but creation and relish the difference.

However, times change and musicians being creative souls will find a way to express their message in the way they want to express them. Today, there are more bands and artists pushing out the branches than this small exploration will allow but the point to make is these are bands that ensure folk music grows, evolves and regenerates. To illustrate the observation I will discuss a few bands that belong to the ranks of ‘boundary pushers’ – although I suspect none would class themselves thus.

Folk music that fuses and Celts that rock

Beoga is one example of folk fused with the old and the new. They take the foundation of Irish traditional music and interweave overlay and integrate a wealth of style and influence to forge the whole. Listen to their album ‘The Incident’ to hear what I mean. Pick out the influences and you’ll discover folk, blues, jazz, rock in their wide web of influence. Look to the styles and find jig, reel, waltz, polka plus ballads of sorrow and humour in equal measure. The true technique is how these talented musicians embrace and integrate each successive mood change – not a seam in sight.

The Peatbog Faeries - often labelled a Celtic or Scottish fusion band are a crucible of folk, jazz, rock, dance, techno and pretty much anything else that blends well into their cauldron of sound. The alchemy this creates builds intense thumping vibrant musical soundscapes. There’s lavish musical experimentation with the wildest of skipping fiddles, vivacious electric guitar, pulse-setting percussion and heart-stopping bass, overlayed with a fantasy ride of ranging keyboards and the drive of skirling pipes. Were that not enough there’s also an intense brass section that positively rocks the rafters.

How much of that take on style and genre is classed as breaking moulds and forging something new? And how often is it considered the bastard child of ill matched parents? Opinion remains equally divided.

The pulsating vein of English psych-folk

Perhaps one of the most underrated styles of somewhat stereotypically English folk is psych-folk. One reason for this remains the blunt rejection of anything remotely psychedelic as 'hippy-influenced, leftist, tree hugging'. Not my words, just the content of a recent email disagreeing with one of my album reviews. Anyway, onward.

One band, Telling the Bees, are prime purveyors of carefully crafted folk expression. Their album, ‘An English Arcanum’ is a heady concoction: a smattering of English myth and magic from the old ways of ancient lore, incisive observation mixed with hope, longing, wishing and dreaming. This album delivers new English folk, with precise songwriting, sensitive, contemplative lyrics combined with intense musical expression.

The Rowan Amber Mill also takes from the tradition and then adds more to it. Their music reflects the peaceful fading light of a warm evening, glass of wine in hand as the breeze gently teases the trees. Their gentle psych-folk album ‘Midsummers’ celebrates the other world of the English summer. That’s the world that still lies beyond the noise and haste of modern life. This music has a mysterious, airy quality that includes strange murmurings, spooky whisperings, wraith-like strings and burning filed effects fashioned over morphing string and pipe-driven memories to evoke fading summer and the arrival of Autumn.

Mixing and matching - a new tradition in the making

It’s said that Flutatious are among those bands ‘dragging folk into the 21st century’. More accurately they are pulling together a disparate variety of musical styles (folk being but one) and taking them somewhere that separately they never thought to go. Their combination of instruments, styles and influences create a network of musical webs. There’s folk, rock, psych, classical, jazz and almost everything else under the musical sun, seeping into a harmonious blend that effortlessly combines Cossack dances, Scottish jigs, rock anthems, folk rhythms and psychedelic waves.

Then of course there's the music that reflects magic, myth, paganism and wicca. The music of Magicfolk heralds fantastic flights of musical and lyrical fancy mixed with a touch of pagan lore, medieval storytelling and a gentle other-worldly air. They blend tantalisingly delicate music with wistful poetic meandering lyrics. Magicfolk’s music would never pass the Old Grey Whistle Test (the ability to whistle the tune on one hearing) but that’s not what they’re about. They form a complex potion of sounds using instruments and voices.

In a world where musical definitions endure - folk, roots, world, rock, ethnic - Dragonsfly transcends boundaries imposed by pointless classification. Their meld of instruments is entrancing with each successive tune weaving a cascade of originality. Their self-confessed influences roam from Celtic, through French and Breton to Eastern Europe and beyond – it’s tempting to suggest there are other rich veins of musical substance in there too. Listen to their album ‘Familiar Shores’ to find out

Many bands defy definition or continue to groan under inaccurate comparisons as reviewers and audiences try restricting definitions. There is so much depth and variation in 21st century folk music, in all its styles, that you could grow old trying to categorise it.

So don’t try, just be thankful there is the latitude and breadth of free experimentation in folk music to allow its metamorphosis into the 21st century to happen.





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